2003 TIFF Update #9: "Foreign Tastes"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 12, 2003

As is traditional for the second Friday of the film festival, the throngs of press are beginning to disperse. Usually, this is the time of the festival when those who remain can find breaks in their schedules that are long enough for a sit down lunch. If I'm going to break bread with Roger Ebert, Harlan Jacobson, or another of the critics I typically hook up with, it's usually today. This year, however, Ebert is home in Chicago. He was here, albeit briefly, last weekend. It's a testimony to his love of movies that, despite his current round of medical problems, he was still willing and able to travel here, see some movies, and spend some time with friends. Hopefully, in three months, when his treatments are over, he will have beaten the scourge of cancer. The good news is that the doctors assure him that his likelihood of complete recovery is extremely high. And, once the cancer is gone, he should be able to return to the active lifestyle he is accustomed to. Next year, I look forward to spending more than 15 minutes in his company.

Of course, as the number of press representatives dwindles, the number of regular movie-goers increases. The second Friday is typically the second highest-attended day of the festival (this statistic is weather dependent, but, since the festival has been rain free, the pleasant temperatures and clear sky will be a contributing factor to large-size crowds). The movies this weekend lack the star power and high profile of last weekend's, but that won't stop congregations of movie lovers from assembling today and tomorrow. Rumor has it that this is the last festival for the grand old Uptown theater, which is due to be torn down to make way for a high-rise apartment building. Although the loss of the two small downstairs rooms isn't a major blow, the large upstairs theater has a movie palace feel. This will be another venerable high capacity theater that falls victim to progress.

Much of this column will be devoted to French films, but I have thrown in one Italian picture and one British one for good measure. Although I wouldn't consider myself to be a Francophile, I have a penchant for French movies. And, while I have no great desire to visit Paris, I have not resorted to calling my deep-fried potatoes "Freedom Fries." (It should be noted that in France, they don't call them French Fries, anyway. Pommes de terre frites.) Only one of the four French films discussed here currently has a distributor. Another will probably get one at some point. The third and fourth are on the bubble. These days, it's virtually impossible to determine what distributors are after. Maybe Miramax will snap them up for a lot of money then leave them sitting on the shelf for a couple of years.

The British film is Girl with a Pearl Earring, and it ranks as my second or third favorite film of the festival. Not coincidentally, both this and my top pick, Lost in Translation, both feature Scarlett Johansson, who has proven herself to be the breakthrough talent of 2003. At age 18, Johansson has a bright future ahead. An Oscar nomination for one of the films is within the realm of possibility, although there is a chance that Johansson's work in Lost in Translation will be overshadowed by the more visible performance of Bill Murray. Both deserve nominations, but Murray is closer to a lock.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is the first feature for director Peter Webber, and what a debut it is! Most freshman filmmakers don't come close to Webber's level of accomplishment, and (not to take anything away from Webber) some of the credit must certainly be parceled out to the cast and the cinematographer, Eduardo Serra. Girl with a Pearl Earring offers sumptous visuals and compelling drama effectively intermingled in a pleasing, satisfying production. The director has crafted the film with great care, composing each frame like a painting with respenct to color, light, camera placement, and texture. Girl with a Pearl Earring could be silent and it would still be an amazing achievement. Indeed, the dialogue is sparse, which forces the performers to do most of their acting with expressions and body language - something Johansson excels at. By reading her eyes and face, we understand her thoughts.

The movie purports to tell the story behind the creation of Vermeer's 1665 painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Since historical records are sketchy at best, most of the screenplay (based on Tracy Chevalier's book) is conjecture. The film does not carry a "based on real events" label. Nevertheless, the postulated tale is both credible and dramatically solid, thus forming the spine of a sensitive, intelligent motion picture.

Griet (Johansson) goes to work in the household of Johannes Vermeer when she's a teenager. Forced into service because her parents can no longer support her, she must endure difficult conditions in order to remain employed. The Vermeers are not easy to work for. The head of the household (Colin Firth) is a moody individual, and spends long hours locked away in his vast studio. His perpetually pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), is resentful and jealous of Griet's youth and beauty. His mother-in-law, Maria (Judy Parfitt), is a strict disiplinarian. His children don't like her and his patron, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), likes her too much. Eventually, van Ruijven's attraction for Griet leads him to commission a painting of her. Maid posing for master leads to a variety of tension, both domestic and erotic. The result of this, however, is "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

Most recent movies about painters have done a poor job of conveying the delicacy and complexity of the artistic process. Not so in this case. Webber's approach gives us excellent insight into Vermeer's creative process. The scenes in his studio, especially those with Griet working as his assistant/apprentice, are among the best the movie has to offer. The relatively straightforward melodrama of the tension between Griet and the rest of the household is more than balanced by the better, more complex material. The sexual chemistry between Griet and Vermeer is wonderfully understated, but unmistakble. The most erotic moment of the film comes when Vermeer steals a glance at Griet with her hair unbound. It's every bit as sensual as if he had seen her naked.

Johansson's sublime performance is ably supported by her better-known co-stars. Colin Firth gives us a brooding, dour Vermeer who only shows passion while painting (imagine Mr. Darcy with long hair). Judy Parfitt is her usual excellent, acid-tongued self. Tom Wilkinson gives himself to debauched abandon. And Essie Davis plays her part as a grown-up spoiled brat to the hilt. We have come to anticipate top-notch acting in British productions, and our expectations are not disappointed here. Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of those films that does many things right, and that places it among the year's best period pieces. It's more than a cut above the usual BBC costume drama.

The Italian film is called Facing Window, and, like nearly every other movie with the word "window" in the title, it deals with voyeurism and obsession. Fascinating subjects, to be sure, but the film fails to delve beneath the surface of either, prefering instead to use them as plot devices to fuel a lackluster love story. This is one of those movies that will probably generate more praise than it deserves simply because it's European. There is a cadre of critics out there who will turn their thumbs up to a film if it has subtitles. In reality, however, the content of Facing Window makes it a questionable recommendation, at best.

The story revolves around the rocky marriage of Filippo (Fillippo Nigro) and Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who, despite working different shifts, can't seem to get along. They argue all the time about money, responsibility, and sex, and one gets the feeling that the only reason they're together is because of the kids. One day, they encounter a lost old man (Massimo Girotti) wandering around on the street. He is afflicted with amnesia and can't remember his name. Giovanna wants to ignore him, but kind-hearted Filippo decides to bring him home until he regains his memory or the police discover his identity. Meanwhile, Giovanna has been watching a good-looking neighbor through her kitchen window, and, after meeting him, she discovers that there is a mutual attraction. Eventually, she learns that she wasn't the only voyeur; he has been observing her for months.

The window-watching and the love story that springs from it are actually secondary concerns. The primary thrust of the movie is on how the presence of the old man changes life for both Filippo and Giovanna. Through him, she learns not to settle for life, but to go after her dreams. It's a trite and familiar message that's delivered in a rather heavy-handed fashion. So she quits her job and decides to pursue her desire of becoming a pastry chef. As stories of longing and roads not taken go, this one is unfortunately shallow.

Lead actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno is a stunningly beautiful woman and a decent actress, but she develops no chemistry whatsoever with either of her same-age co-stars. In fact, she connects better with Girotti's old man. It's almost impossible to believe there's anything beyond curiosity in her relationship with her neighbor, and moments of affection between Giovanna and Filippo are brief and occasional. I have heard this movie described as a love story, but I found little in the way of convincing romance. Facing Window has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for U.S. distribution, but, unless it arrives on a very slow weekend, it's probably best skipped - unless you have a penchant for shallow, "comfortable" foreign films that offer obvious messages and never attempt to challenge the viewer.

And now to what the French have to offer... and it's a lot more interesting than Facing Window.

First up is a film that has virtually no chance of finding a North American distributor. After all, what's the market for slasher films with subtitles? That's the nature of Haute Tension, and it's a pity that the movie is attracting such little attention, because it is arguably the best horror movie since The Blair Witch Project. This is what Jeepers Creepers could have been had it maintained the tight, edgy pace of its first half. Haute Tension is a nerve-jangler that keeps the level of suspense high, throws in moments of black comedy, and turns everything on its ear in the final ten minutes. The subtitles aren't as much of a distraction as one might think, because the movie is light on dialogue. For the most part, the characters are trying to be quiet, not engaging in long or meaningful conversations.

The story is pretty simple: two girls, Marie (Cecile de France) and Alex (Maiwenn), take a road trip to the isolated farm house where Alex's family lives. On the first night they're there, a ruthless serial killer breaks into the house and kills everyone except Marie (who is hiding) and Alex. He binds and gags Alex, then bundles her into the back of his truck. Marie unwittingly hitches a ride. The action shifts to an isolated gas station then to the middle of the woods as Marie attempts to free Alex without being gutted. And, judging by the ugly state of his previous victims, the killer doesn't have much mercy.

The film revels in blood and gore, but this is not just a run-of-the-mill splatter film. There's a lot of intelligence in both the script and in Alexandre Aja's direction. The cinematograpy and music score are edgy. There are numerous subtle nods to earlier movies (everything from Halloween to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), although none of them are as jokily self-referential as those in Scream. For those who enjoy horror films and don't mind copious quantites of red-dyed fluids, this is a don't miss - provided you can find a venue showing it. Hopefully, some adventurous distributor will pick it up and give it a chance on DVD.

Jeux d'enfants may be the most innovative romantic comedy to play at this year's festival, and, like Haute Tension, its distribution prospects are dubious. Those who have read my reviews over the years recognize that I'm a sucker for intelligent, quirky romantic comedies, and this certainly fits into that category. Presented with a bite by writer/director Yann Samuell, the film defies predictability. The moment you think you know how things are going to go, they take a turn in a different direction. And the ending may be the most original part of the entire production. I can't recall any romantic comedy concluding on such a note of finality.

Julien (played by Thibault Verhaeghe as a child and Guillaume Canet as an adult) and Sophie (Josephine Lebas-Joly, Marion Cotillard) have been friends since childhood, when Julien played a trick on a bus full of kids who were teasing Sophie. From that day, the two have engaged in an elaborate game of dares and counter-dares, with the objectives becoming increasingly outrageous as they grew to be teenagers, then adults. Although the two share a deep bond that goes beyond a conventional friendship, and it seems inevitable that they will one day end up together, obstacles keep blocking their paths, and the sexual aspect of their relationship is not consummated. But still the dares continue, until they become so monumental that they inflict emotional pain and distress.

The performances by Canet and Cotillard are wonderful; these two make one of the most delightful screen couples in recent years. Cotillard is radiant and Canet displays the suave insecurity that has, for many years, been Patrick Dempsey's trademark. With a smart script, superlative performances, and some of the most audacious and black-edged comedy of the festival, Jeux d'enfants deserves to be seen in art houses around the country. Sadly, that looks to be more wishful thinking than reality.

Anne Fontaine's Nathalie..., which played here as a Gala, has a shot at U.S. distribution, owing in part to the star power of three of France's biggest names: Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant, and Emmanuelle Beart. The film is exactly what audiences have come to expect from French cinema (and what the generic sterotype predicts): a talky affair where dialogue and character development replace plot and action, with a little tasty nudity thrown in for good measure.

So what keeps the movie from being boring? Nathalie... is like lewd Eric Rohmer - that is to say that what the characters have to say is interesting. That the actors are all superb doesn't hurt (nor does the fact that Beart is easily one of the most beautiful women in the world). Certain audiences are not going to like this kind of movie, but, if you don't mind slower films with lots of intelligent, fascinating dialogue, this production will offer a hugely satisfying two hours.

Catherine (Ardant) and Bernard (Depardieu) have an apparently happy marriage, until Ardant discovers that Bernard has been unfaithful, and begins to question the very foundation of their union. In an attempt to learn things about her husband that he will not reveal directly to her, she hires a prostitute (Emmanuelle Beart) to pose as a college student named "Nathalie" and seduce Bernard. Thus begins an odd menage-a-trois. Nathalie will meet Bernard for a sexual liaison, then, after they are done, she will have a drink with Catherine and provide her with a detail-rich account of the encounter.

Nathalie... doesn't show much sex. Instead, we are privy to Nathalie's graphic descriptions, which leave little to the imagination. This is an adult film in every sense of the word, and Fontaine doesn't shy away from having her characters discuss risqué matters. There's also plenty of unacknowledged sexual tension between Catherine and Nathalie. As a character study and an examination of some of the reasons why relationships fail (and why some men visit prostitutes), Nathalie... offers compelling food for thought, with a little visual stimulation thrown in on the side.

The only French film I saw at the festival guaranteed to show up in some U.S. theaters is Bon Voyage, and that's because Sony Pictures Classics has already purchased the rights.

Bon Voyage, the latest cinematic effort from veteran French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano De Bergerac, The Horseman on the Roof), is in many ways a throwback - an old-fashioned historical feature with impeccable period details and a good heaping of melodrama. Unlike many films of this sort, Bon Voyage avoids the pitfall of becoming overly sentimental, preferring instead to adopt a playful, almost comedic tone. Unfortunately, a little too much pointless running around coupled with the underdevelopment of several key characters results in a movie that’s never more than mildly diverting.

It’s 1940, and France is about to fall to Germany. The government is packing up to move from Paris to Bordeaux. It’s against this tableau that Rappeneau’s story unspools. Viviane (Isabelle Adjani) is a popular actress whose films are loved by all. The infatuation for her performances carries over to her person. At least four characters are enraptured with her: a high-ranking politician (Gerard Depardieu) who wants peace with the Germans; a reporter who’s really a German spy (Peter Coyote); a young writer named Frederic (Grégori Derangère); and a wealthy, uncouth financier. When the latter ends up dead and Frederic agrees to take care of the body, a chain of events is set in motion that lands the innocent writer in jail and leads to Viviane becoming the minister’s mistress. To further complicate matters, a Jewish professor and his pretty assistant (Virginie Ledoyen) are trying to get to England with several containers of heavy water, that, if they fall into German hands, could be used to make an atomic bomb. After Frederic escapes from prison, he ends up alternately helping the professor, dodging the law, and trying to reconcile with Viviane.

Bon Voyage successfully evokes the feel of Paris in the 1940s, but it is less effective in telling its story. The pace is rapid, but there's a lot of wasted energy. Characters move from place-to-place with dizzying speed, but there’s a sense of repetition - that each interaction is like the one before it and that nothing is really happening. How often, for example, do Frederic and Viviane have essentially the same conversation? Or Viviane and the minister? In the end, Rappeneau ends up jettisoning several prominent supporting characters simply because there’s no "clean" way to conclude all of their subplots. Two romantic triangles are resolved in unsatisfying manners to allow the protagonists to have a sunset moment.

The film’s tone is, in many ways, its salvation. The moments of heaviest melodrama are a little tongue-in-cheek (I cannot believe that Gabriel Yared’s soaring score isn’t edging towards parody at times), and there are several intentionally comedic sequences. By keeping things light, Rappeneau allows us to forgive (at least to an extent) the fact that none of the characters are developed to a satisfying level. He’s saying "have fun; don’t take things too seriously." Good advice, to a point. However, any serious comments he’s trying to make get lost along the way.

The acting is first-rate, but we would expect nothing less from this group of performers. The standout is Isabelle Adjani, who, looking 20 years younger than her actual age, fashions a marvelous character. Viviane is both manipulator and ditz, and may be as much a victim of her own shortsightedness as she is a victimizer. Grégori Derangère (who looks a little like a young Geoffrey Palmer) proves to be an affable hero - both a man of thought and a man of action. Virginie Ledoyen is as lovely as ever, although she is underused. And Gerard Depardieu gives us a few nice moments as a man who wants peace at any costs.

So what’s the verdict on the movie? Bon Voyage can be enjoyed for what it is, provided expectations are kept low. The frantic pace staves off boredom, but I spent a great deal of the movie feeling that I was being let down - that there was so much more to the characters and situations than we are provided with. That, I suppose is the difference between a great historical drama and a mediocre one. Despite its small pleasures, Bon Voyage falls into the latter category.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

Back to Main Festival Page